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Brad Underwood is stacking classes, and it’s impressive

Amani Hansberry is the Illini’s first 2023 commit.

Twitter: @igb_Amani

On Sunday, DC-native Amani Hansberry verbally committed to Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini. The 6-foot-8 big man who played for Team Durant on the AAU circuit, chose the Illini over a finalist list that included Miami, Virginia Tech, Penn State and Auburn.

So what does this mean for the Illini in 2023 and beyond?

Well, Illinois just got a verbal commitment from a guy who is really good at basketball. This seems like a consistent pattern. No more questionable Power Five prospects are committing to the Illini just to fill roster space. The program is in prime position to be picky, and this selectiveness is paying off in the form of a deep, versatile, talented roster.

Hansberry brings versatility and skill to the Illini. He has the size to guard multiple positions. He has the switchability Brad Underwood covets and the rebounding ability that sets him apart from similarly ranked players. And speaking of rankings…

Rankings don’t matter when you’re great at evaluating. When the Illini offered Hansberry back in February, he was ranked outside of the 247 top-100 recruits. This led to some consternation among a fan base accustomed to landing top-50 prospects like Ayo Dosumnu, Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo and Skyy Clark. Coming off a top-10 ranked class in 2022, putting a lot of your eggs in the basket of a less-heralded target wasn’t well-received by portions of the Illini fan base who care more about ranking services than evaluations.

And to compound the situation, Hansberry was clearly the top target on the Illini board.

To the surprise of nobody in the Illini program, Hansberry has seen a meteoric rise to become a near top-50 ranked prospect. After a stellar season on the EYBL circuit, Hansberry became a true helium guy in recruiting circles.

Chester Frazier knew what he was seeing and clearly didn’t care about the ranking. He cared about the player, and now the player has risen to the level of his pursuit. This staff continues to outwork and out evaluate the competition on the trail, and it’s resulting in a perpetual reloading process instead of the gut rebuild jobs that permeated the 2010s.

Stacking classes is a real thing. Coach Underwood and company had two commitments in the class of 2024 (Chicago St. Rita forward Morez Johnson and Overtime Elite guard ZZ Clark) but none in the class of 2023. The 2022 class finished in the top-10 nationally. All of this after two consecutive seasons where a top-50 recruit on the Illini roster was a first team All-American in his junior year.

The program lost former top-100 guards Brandin Podziemski and Andre Curbelo to the transfer portal this offseason. But the talent departures sting less when the staff grinds and fights and wins Power 5 battles for freshmen and transfers.

Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer runs out of eligibility at the end of this season, and he’s the only player on the roster who absolutely can’t come back. But if the season goes according to plan, the roster could legitimately see as many as four early departures for the NBA draft.

When you bring in elite talent, the NBA will want them. When you send that talent to the NBA early, prep recruits will buy in. When prep recruits buy in, you’ve reloaded your roster without missing a beat.

This sure is different than consistently whiffing on every single point guard target, isn’t it? Speaking of which…

Power forward will not be Brad Underwood’s white whale like point guard was for John Groce. Jawun Evans. Jalen Brunson. Quentin Snider. Marcus Lovett. We all remember the names. We all remember watching them suit up for someone else. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

For a while, it seemed like Coach Underwood would struggle similarly in pursuit of his ideal 4-man. Some of the big name misses are a who’s who of recent college basketball.

  • E.J. Liddell
  • Drew Timme
  • Oscar Tshiebwe
  • …and Bryce Hopkins

The emergence of Coleman Hawkins and the presence of Dain Dainja underscore the importance of this position for Underwood. And Hansberry is a skilled shooter, tough rebounder, and high iq, versatile weapon. He is the kind of seamless fit this staff seems to love (hi, Ty Rogers).

Chester Frazier is a dog. Anyone who ever watched Chester suit up in orange and blue already knew this. But as an assistant coach, he’s pushed the Illini guards to be better. As a recruiter, he’s been the lead recruiter on both Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris, two guards who “have that dog in them” as they say. Coach Frazier definitely has a type.

And he almost brought future lottery pick Cam Whitmore to the Illini thanks to his dogged, earnest approach on the trail. But there was no almost about Amani Hansberry. When the Baltimore native Frazier connected with the DC native residing and balling in Charm City, the connection was real. And as of today, so are the Illini’s chances to not have to rebuild for the foreseeable future.

Illinois just beat Auburn for a recruit. This means Bruce Pearl is sad. And yes, I am still petty enough after all these years to raise a toast to his recruiting Ls.